Two years of Arab Spring: Tunis, Cairo … Ramallah?

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Dec 24th, 2012
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By Amira Hass, haaretz

PALESTINIAN-GAZA-ISLAM-US-FILM-UNRESTThe inspiration for the Arab Spring came from young people in the street, but it seemed to bypass the West Bank and Gaza. Haaretz tracks down the Palestinians still talking about a revolution

“Hold your head high because you are a Palestinian.” This was Fatah’s official slogan for the local council elections in the West Bank. The message imitated the chant sounded by demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square: “Hold your head high because you are an Egyptian.” The Palestinian version has also been on the lips of young people: for example, when they demonstrated against the intention of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to meet Shaul Mofaz in Ramallah. In contrast, during a Hamas rally in Ramallah staged at the time of Operation Pillar of Defense last month, the demonstrators chanted a variation of the main revolutionary Arab call: “The people want missiles to be fired,” and not as an ironic description of the Israeli people’s desires.

During the first days of the 2011 revolution in Egypt, when small groups of Palestinians asked to organize support rallies, both Hamas authorities in Gaza and Fatah authorities in the West Bank tried to dissuade them. They did not expect Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to fall from power so quickly, and were afraid of harming the relations with his regime.

A group of young people, who had started to organize before the revolutions and wanted to shake up Ramallah’s artificial normality, learned about the authorities’ position in the usual manner. Bassam (not his real name ) recalls: “During a support rally for the Egyptian people, one of us was holding an Egyptian flag and so was beaten by security personnel. When we demonstrated at Manara Square [in Ramallah], after we reserved the site and time with the police, it turned out that, ‘completely by coincidence,’ the Fatah movement staged a rally in support of Palestinian prisoners who are incarcerated in Israel, at exactly the same spot.”

When Palestinians were glued to direct broadcasts from Tunisia and then Egypt, they were proud to hear young revolutionaries there identify themselves and their demonstrations as an “intifada.” In the regional calculus of peoples who have risen up against oppressors, the Palestinians are definitely at the top of the list. Hence, a question arises: Why hasn’t the Arab intifada wave swept up the Palestinians?

Bassam, who is in his late twenties, belongs to a group of young Palestinians that was formed before and during the revolutions. The group constitutes the nucleus of several organized groupings of young people that have consolidated since then, under various names. One such group is “Palestinians for Dignity,” which defied the unwritten prohibition and managed to demonstrate a few times in front of the government compound, the Muqata (Abbas’ headquarters ).

Bassam says that from the start, members of his group did not anticipate that the region’s revolutions would stir immediate, radical change among Palestinians: “We face two layers of oppression – Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza, and the Israeli occupation. One glaring obstacle is that it is very easy to criticize young people like us and say ‘What are you doing, you traitors and collaborators with the enemy? You need to focus your attention on the occupation and not on the Palestinian regime.’

“I think we grasped that in our case, the situation is going to be very different,” Bassam adds. “Thus, we decided to concentrate on matters that connect between the two layers – such as security coordination, or political prisoners who are confined in either Israeli prisons or Palestinian Authority and Hamas jails.”

End the division

During one demonstration, which was brutally stifled by Palestinian security men (and prompted a committee of inquiry ), I heard one of the young people furiously tell a cohort: “First we get rid of the sulta [Palestinian Authority], and then the Jews.” He noticed me, and cracked a confused grin. Perhaps that was because his remark created the mistaken impression that he believes such liberations can happen quickly, and that a few dozen young people have the power to carry them out. On the other hand, the comment reflects a feeling of self-importance that has started to emerge among young Palestinians in the wake of the revolutions that were ignited by Tunisians and Egyptians their own age.

Bassam recalls that when he and his peers took part in political discussions, older participants would not be listening intently to them and their opinions. In contrast, after the revolutions took root, “ten minutes after the start of a meeting, they would start to ask us our views. Suddenly we exist?”

These groups did not manage to topple class barriers, however. As members of the middle class and upper middle class – many growing up in families that support the PA and the PLO – they have not created viable connections with young people from villages and refugee camps. Bassam promises that they are now working on ways to correct the situation.

The fact that youth becomes a “discovery” reflects to what extent the PLO/PA political scene has become stagnant over the past 20 years. The first intifada was started by young people in late 1987. And all PLO organizations were originally founded by students and other young people. Sociologist Jamil Hilal was born in Beit Sahur and worked for about a decade for the PLO’s Research Center in Beirut before he returned to the country in 1995. He met with Bassam and his friends in order to tell them about the dynamic organization of his own experience, and which served as the name of import for all Palestinians – the PLO. Today, the PLO is enveloped within the Palestinian Authority; together with other organizations that comprise the PA, it has become a petrified entity devoid of intellectual and generational vitality.

Hilal believes Ramallah’s new youth groups had great expectations at the start of the Arab revolutions, particularly in regard to the prospects of quickly concluding the internal division between the Palestinians. Together with young people in Gaza, they established a group called March 15. The group called for an end to the political split between Gaza and the West Bank and the duplication of governmental authority. They demonstrated, confronted authorities, staged hunger strikes and were arrested. The two rival movements also attested to being in favor of an end to the political division between Gaza and the West Bank, but the split continued.

That Bassam doesn’t mention March 15 is no accident: “The real division is not between Hamas and Fatah,” he says. “In the final analysis, both of them think the same way [in terms of establishing a state on the 1967 borders - A.H.]. The division is between them and those who look beyond the West Bank and Gaza, and who say we are the Palestinians of 1947, before everything happened.”

One reason why a group of young people did not sweep up the masses, he says, stems from the discourse which the PA has cultivated over the past 20 years: “We live in a place where even Palestinians consider Haifa as “Israel,” weather forecasts do not include Nazareth, and where the three daily newspapers do not include reports about Nazareth, Shfa’amr and Lyd. Contemporary politics of our parties, and their narratives, create a way of thinking among us that is very hard to overturn,” he says.

Opposition to the Palestinian Authority, therefore, finds expression via a sharp departure from a discourse about two states, and via a U turn back toward PLO discourse of the 1960s – toward an era when the existence of a Jewish-Israeli society was not yet taken into account.

Hilal says Palestinians do not have a “Tahrir Square” in which millions can gather. A reality of the division, he says, is decisive not only regarding affairs between Gaza and the West Bank, but also within the West Bank [where separations prevail between "A" areas and checkpoint barriers proliferate - A.H.]. During the revolutions in the Arab world, squares like Tahrir became crucial venues that facilitated rapid, intensive political education among the masses.

In the Palestinian case, the lack of such a square is not a new development: in 1987 there was no Palestinian Tahrir Square. However, the first intifada erupted at a time when Israel (for economic reasons ) still respected the right of Palestinians to move freely throughout the country as a whole. During the preceding 20 years Palestinians could experience a reality of life in one country, without impassable internal borders. The shrinking of space, and its being cut up since 1991 as parcels of land separated from one another, has exerted a detrimental influence upon revolutionary creativity.

Bassam says: “We have two groups of youth: [those who are] very politically cultured, who in the past were close to political parties. But most of them were not creative. The creative people who are less educated politically, studied abroad and have great ideas, but are weak in messaging.”

In Gaza, the Arab revolutions and the relative lifting of the siege have exerted an influence on young Hamas activists, says a Hamas member from the “second” generation. He adds: “Young people concluded that change can be brought about not only via military means. It is also easier for them, in contrast to the past, to leave the Gaza Strip via Rafah. They discovered a new world.”

These comments contradict Bassam’s impression. He contends that, after the war in Gaza, a feeling strengthened among many Palestinians in the West Bank – including young people such as himself – that only an armed struggle can yield results. For people his age, Bassam says, popular struggle in its present form appears to be “too Westernized.”

Hassan Ayoub, who teaches international relations at An-Najah National University, Nablus, believes young people might have been encouraged by the results of the last war, and by the endurance displayed by armed Palestinian organizations. However, in his opinion the young people know that the same model cannot be imitated in the West Bank. Ayoub, who was born in the Askar refugee camp and was a political activist for the Democratic Front during the first intifada, says: “The kids are very confused, but they know they have to do something. They grew up in a reality in which the prospects for confrontation with the Israeli occupation are very marginal. They were born into a process of depoliticization, which was the flip side of policies enacted by Abbas and [Palestinian Prime Minister] Salam Fayyad – that is, the policy was to act like any other state.”

In the years following the Oslo Accords, Ayoub says there has been a gradual process of social disintegration. Internal solidarity has declined; there has been no involvement in the village struggle against the separation fence; and “when the army invades east and west Nablus, people sit in coffeehouses, as though everything is normal. I call it the ‘Ramallization’ of Nablus – the pretense that all is normal.” He notes, however, that “recently, one can sense seeds of change – especially after the war in Gaza.”

“The revolutions created a dynamic that allows us to cultivate hope once again,” Hilal says. And Bassam says that “even though revolutions take time, and it’s too early to draw final conclusions, they have, first of all, taught us that change is possible.”

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